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Tuesday, July 24, 2007
UPPER HOUSE SHOWDOWN
Tokyo swing voters facing a wide field
From hemophiliac activist-crusader to Yasukuni-specific Tojo grandchild
By MASAMI ITO
A hot political battle is brewing in Tokyo. In one of the world's most populous metropolises, 20 candidates are in a heated campaign for Sunday's Upper House election, each desperately trying to win one of the five seats in the district up for grabs.
The candidates' backgrounds are diverse. There are, for example, a TV newscaster, an inventor, Class-A war criminal Hideki Tojo's granddaughter and a victim of the HIV tainted-blood debacle.
Out of the five seats, political analysts agree two are most likely to be retained by incumbents — Sanzo Hosaka of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and Kan Suzuki of the Democratic Party of Japan. That leaves the remaining three vacancies up to fate.
Political analyst Takayoshi Miyagawa, president of the Center for Political Public Relations, said candidates must win over the large segment of voters unaffiliated with any party across greater Tokyo, including both the 23 wards of the central capital and the outlying regions. He estimated 5 million to 6 million of Tokyo's 10 million voters are nonaligned.
Experts say traditional balloting patterns are changing nationwide as organized vote-getting machines like labor unions and the construction lobby, which have historically supported specific parties, are failing to sway younger voters. In Tokyo and other big cities, the power of unaffiliated voters has been particularly strong.
"Swing voters represent the move to break free from political ties," Miyagawa said. "They have a deep interest in politics, but they simply do not support a particular party."
Elections may still appear to be the stuff of political strategists and backroom deals, but Miyagawa called winning over swing voters "actually quite simple." And Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's struggling Cabinet, he added, has provided the key.
The Cabinet, inaugurated last September, has been repeatedly dogged by scandals and other problems, resulting in a drastic drop its support rate.
Abe and his ruling bloc — the LDP and New Komeito — have been under attack from the opposition parties over the pension fiasco, in which the Social Agency admitted it cannot identify 50 million pension payment records, thus many pensioners are receiving less money than they are entitled to. This is considered the key issue for voters.
Abe has also had to replace three Cabinet ministers since September. Administrative reform minister Genichiro Sata stepped down in December after disclosing what he called "accounting irregularities" — which he acknowledged may have been illegal — at a political support group.
In May, farm minister Toshikatsu Matsuoka committed suicide amid reports of enormous and as yet unexplained "office fees," as well as ties with an organization involved in bid-rigging.
Soon after his successor, Norihiko Akagi, assumed the post, he too was showered with criticism when one of his support groups was found to have accumulated mysteriously large expenses. Experts say voters are dissatisfied with Abe's repeated defense of LDP politicians at the center of what continue to be opaque money dealings.
Adding insult to injury, Fumio Kyuma was forced to resign as defense ministry earlier this month after stating the 1945 atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki "couldn't be helped."
These missteps have been a golden opportunity for the opposition camp, particularly the DPJ, to gain ground.
However, Miyagawa noted, "The DPJ is not functioning as a repository for disgruntled LDP voters because it is still a new and relatively inexperienced party." The DPJ was formed in 1998.
But Rei Shiratori, chairman of the nonprofit Institute for Political Studies in Japan, said the DPJ is well-positioned to benefit from public dissatisfaction — even if only by default.
"Japan is in the final stages of establishing a two-party political system," Shiratori said. "Public distrust in the LDP is shifting support to the DPJ because there are no other alternatives to vote for."
The LDP originally hoped to ensure a win for Hosaka with traditional "block votes" while Tamayo Marukawa, as a former TV Asahi anchorwoman, would pick up enough votes among independents to win a second seat for the LDP from Tokyo. But Shiratori believes the LDP's scandals may have doomed Marukawa's chances.
It was also revealed last week that Marukawa neglected to file a change in address after returning from New York in 2004. Although she made the changes in April, she will not have been registered for three months prior to election day, as is required of candidates by the Public Offices Election Law.
Not only does this mean Marukawa doesn't have the right to vote this time, she also skipped all elections since her return, including the 2005 Lower House race in which the LDP won a sweeping victory and the recent Tokyo gubernatorial election.
Critics say this indicates Marukawa is not deeply engaged in the political process and by failing to vote has not lived up to her civic obligations.
Shiratori, meanwhile, questioned her ability to articulate a political vision.
"She cannot be pinned down and nobody can understand what kind of policies she is trying to put forth," he said.
Analysts place more faith in DPJ candidate Masako Ookawara. As the mother of three and a decade-long Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly member actively involved in public issues, including welfare and education, many see her as a more stable candidate than Marukawa.
Ookawara "has a clear (political) vision and (genuine attitude)," analyst Miyagawa said.
Shiratori sees broader implications.
"This is just another reflection of how Abe chooses people carelessly, without thorough investigation," he said.
The LDP is also in a bind because it does not have the support in Tokyo of New Komeito, which is solidly backed by Soka Gakkai, Japan's largest lay Buddhist organization.
Aside from five districts, including Tokyo, where New Komeito is running its own candidates, the party has backed the LDP — a move that has kept the LDP from self-destructing amid severe public criticism, Shiratori said.
But in Tokyo, New Komeito has its own candidate, Natsuo Yamaguchi, to look after.
An open question is to what degree independent candidates can gain from the major parties' struggles.
Yuko Tojo, granddaughter of former Prime Minister and Class-A war criminal Gen. Hideki Tojo, meanwhile appears to have one focus: promoting lawmakers' visits to Yasukuni Shrine, which is dedicated to the nation's war dead but also enshrines her grandfather and other war criminals. Miyagawa believes her focus is too narrow to gain the general public's vote.
On the other hand, hemophiliac Ryuhei Kawada, 31, who was infected with HIV from tainted blood products in a huge scandal that implicated the government and drug companies, has earned accolades from analysts, including Miyagawa, who called him "the one independent candidate who has a strong possibility to win."
Kawada and other tainted-blood victims won a historic settlement in 1996 in a lawsuit against the government and pharmaceutical firms. Kawada is vowing to curb irresponsible actions by the government, boasting of his independence and lack of political ties.
"Kawada has made actual achievements by fighting against the health ministry over the HIV-tainted blood products," Miyagawa said. "He is the symbol of what the public wants, standing as a leader of an antigovernmental movement."